At the end of her moving, soulful, joyous and celebratory free concert in Detroit on Saturday, Aretha Franklin left her hometown crowd with an ominous message.
“God bless you, God keep you,” the Queen of Soul told fans after her headlining performance at the inaugural Detroit Music Weekend. She took a deep breath and a 10-second pause. “Keep me in your prayers.”
She walked over to the Rev. Jesse Jackson, one of several special guests on hand for the evening, and the two held each other. Franklin then looked out over the audience, waved and exited the stage.
If it was Franklin’s last performance in Detroit, as was hinted in the lead up to the show, and she gave the crowd of several thousand one to remember. Franklin was in fine form vocally — her impossibly rich voice evoking a lifetime of pain and struggle, praise and pride – but appeared frail physically, as the 75-year-old sat in a chair on stage for several songs and ceded the stage to Jackson and Mississippi gospel duo the Williams Brothers for two others. She was helped on and off stage by members of her entourage.
And she took the stage only when she was ready. Despite an advertised 6 p.m. start time, Franklin didn’t take the stage until a few minutes before 7 p.m. She was introduced to the stage roughly 15 minutes prior by Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and WMXD-FM’s Gerald McBride, whose intros were followed by an extended period of awkward silence. The hold-up: A few hundred feet away, Franklin was inside her car, parked on Madison, waiting to exit.
Franklin’s band was already on stage and started cueing up some of the Queen’s classic instrumentals, including “Natural Woman” and “Think,” while commotion surrounded Franklin’s vehicle. When she finally emerged, she was flanked by Jackson, who held her hand as Franklin exited her vehicle, walked through the backstage area and onto the stage.
“Hello, Detroit!” she offered the fans. She opened with “I Knew You Were Waiting,” an appropriate choice given that fans had been waiting in the sun for hours for Franklin to take the stage.
That crowd gave Franklin a warm welcome, shouting “your majesty!” and “we love you, Aretha!” as she took the microphone. In addition to filling the parking lot along Madison between John R and Grand River, fans watched from the fire escapes of the Ashley Hotel and on the roof of the nearby Detroit Athletic Club.
Franklin, dressed in a gorgeous white ball gown with gold accents, swayed to the music and raised her arms in the air as her band played behind her. Always one to single out friends, family and VIPs in the crowd, she pointed out former Detroit Councilwoman JoAnn Watson, and later shouted out Mary Wilson of the Supremes, former boxing champ Tommy Hearns and gospel singer Vickie Winans.
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan also was on hand and presented Franklin with a key to the city of Detroit midway through the show, saying the key was “Detroit’s highest show of R-E-S-P-E-C-T.”
Franklin was in a cheeky mood throughout the show, joking several times about her love life: “I’m just getting over a bit of a spell, but I’m getting over it,” Franklin said early on. “I have to get over it. I don’t have a man at home saying, ‘Baby, you don’t have to go.’ I’ve gotta pull it together.”
Later, when addressing Tommy Hearns, she mentioned the boxer Sugar Ray Leonard. “He sure is cute,” she said, seemingly putting out word to him, “… if you wanna holla.”
Franklin’s often stirring 95-minute, 13-song set touched on classics from her five-decade career, including “Chain of Fools,” “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” “Hooked on Your Love,” “Ain’t No Way,” “Freeway of Love,” “Brand New Me” and “Something He Can Feel.” She also worked in a version of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” that segued into “Ain’t No Mountain,” a version she recorded for her 2014 album, “Aretha Sings the Great Diva Classics.”
She was backed by a trio of backup singers and a large band conducted by Chicago’s Fred Nelson III. A gospel song on which she was joined by the Williams Brothers provided the set’s emotional high; a trip up came when Franklin was stopped singing during the first verse of “Rolling in the Deep,” using the time to introduce her band members.
Franklin’s set came after a day of performances at Detroit Music Weekend, an outdoor celebration that encompassed several blocks around Music Hall in Detroit’s entertainment district. The several thousand fans were greeted by perfect weather that reached into the upper 80s, and many brought umbrellas to shield themselves from the sun that blasted the crowd, especially during Franklin’s set.
Earlier this year, Franklin — who was also the subject of a tribute concert at Music Hall on Friday, although she did not show up to be a part of it – said she is beginning to wind down her touring schedule. While no end date has been pegged, Saturday’s concert had been discussed as perhaps her last in the city.
Her parting words — “keep me in your prayers” — gave what came before an added weight. If the show was indeed her swan song, she remained herself, the undisputed Queen of Soul, until the very end.